INDIANAPOLIS — The thousands of union workers who gathered outside Indiana's Statehouse for a huge rally Thursday railed against several education and labor bills, but their message reflected a united theme: Republicans here and across the country have gone too far in pushing an agenda opponents consider an attack on working families.
"They have called a war on the middle class," Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, told the cheering crowd. "This is a battle that we must win!"
State police estimated that more than 8,000 people gathered outside the Statehouse at the rally's peak, making it the largest rally at the Indiana Statehouse in years. Indiana AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott told the crowd – some wearing fluorescent yellow work vests and hard hats – that craftsmen built the Statehouse more than 100 years ago, and had returned Thursday to reclaim it.
"The working men and women of Indiana have come back to take back the people's house for the people," she said.
Union workers have been gathering at the Statehouse for weeks since a "right-to-work" proposal pushed by House Republicans sparked a flare-up between minority Democrats and Republicans who control the General Assembly and the governor's office. House Democrats fled to Illinois on Feb. 22, denying the House the quorum it needs to conduct business, killing the right-to-work bill and delaying progress on several other proposals including the state budget.
Two House Democrats returned from Urbana, Ill., to attend Thursday's rally, where protesters shook their hands and thanked them for their ongoing boycott.
"We have not come home," Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis, told workers. "We're standing for families. We're standing for the middle class. We're standing for teachers."
Most Republicans were not around for the rally, because the House and Senate had adjourned for the weekend by the time it started. But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, issued a statement that said Republicans aren't trying to destroy public education or eliminate the working class as the workers claimed. He said GOP proposals aim to do the opposite: create outstanding education options for all families and create high-wage jobs for all workers, whether they are union or non-union jobs.
"This is the clear agenda House Republicans ran on in November, and this is what we continue to stand for today," Bosma said. "We will continue to advance these proposals at every opportunity, if only our Democrat colleagues will return from Illinois."
Protestors said Republicans, who won control of the Indiana House in November, are overreaching.
"There was an agenda that hasn't been spoken aloud, and one of them is busting unions," said retired postal worker Karen Luehrs. "I didn't hear that in the election. I hear that now loud and clear."
Luehrs came to the rally from Fort Wayne to protest several efforts by the Republicans, including bills to restrict teacher collective bargaining and put into state law the current status that state employees cannot collectively bargain.
"It's important for everybody to speak up when things are wrong, and this is wrong," she said.
Marisa Graham, a teacher from Anderson who spoke to the crowd, said the GOP agenda is out to destroy public education. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is pushing an aggressive education agenda that includes merit pay for teachers, restrictions on teacher collective bargaining and controversial vouchers that would use taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private schools.
"We are not greedy teachers or the privileged elite," she said, quoting a recent Daniels' speech where he used the elite term to refer to public employee unions. "We just want our voice heard. Collective bargaining is our voice."
When other speakers mentioned Daniels by name, the crowd erupted into chants of "Ditch Mitch!" And before the rally began, workers chanted: "Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Mitch Daniels has got to go!"
The only trouble reported by police was from a female state worker who said she was pushed down by three unidentified men when she refused to let them in the employee entrance at an office building near the Statehouse. She hit her head on the ground but declined medical treatment.
Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the Labors' International Union of North America, revved up the crowd with a speech peppered with salty language. He said union members are "not going to sit idly by" as Republicans advance an agenda aimed at hurting unions across several states, including Wisconsin, where lawmakers voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers.
"They want to pick us off and peel us off one worker at a time," he said.